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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

7 Mistakes Districts Have Made During the Pandemic

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 26, 2021 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What do you think have been the biggest mistakes made by district leaders during the pandemic, and what are the lessons that can be learned from them for the future?

A lot of mistakes have been made by a lot of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This two-part series will explore the biggest ones districts have made and what we, and they, should learn from them.

Today’s contributors are PJ Caposey, Selena A. Carrión, Altagracia H. Delgado, and Marci K. Harvey. They all were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

One of my choices for big mistake would be many districts’ disregard of the subsidiarity principle, which suggests that people closest to problems are likely to have the best ideas and be most able to resolve them. I discuss it more in-depth here and here.

Another would be the fact that so many districts, especially during the emergency closures when COVID first hit (though it has also continued), focused on equality instead of equity. They tended to try and provide the same amount and type of learning support to all students, whether they were in the greatest need or not, instead of thinking and implementing plans more strategically. I wrote in a previous Ed Week commentary about what they could have done, instead.


PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of eight books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

When I made our formal reopening-plan recommendation to our board of education, I stated that it was the best bad plan I could come up with.

When anti-maskers challenged me on our willingness to follow the guidelines of the state and of our insurer and attorney, I noted that I may well be wrong.

When people noted hypocrisy in some of the guidance we were to follow, I did not try to explain or rationalize it; I owned it for what it was.

My reason for saying all of this is that I think that the biggest mistake made by many district leaders was acting with hubris, certainty, false assuredness or arrogance. The bottom line is that for 99 percent of educational leaders in our country, this was the first pandemic we ever had the opportunity to lead through. Additionally, the rules of engagement changed many times over—and then changed once more—and then once again. It was impossible to be certain of almost any decision.

I think that many leaders alienated parts of their students, staff, and community with their false assuredness. I still do not know if I made a single correct decision throughout this whole time. I made the most informed and researched decisions I could make, but I am not sure I was actually correct. It was amazing to watch how disarming that was when people came forward to critique our directions.

So, if I had to say that there was a single mistake I saw many leaders make, it was unwavering assuredness in their proposal or plan as, quite simply, I am still not sure that I have read a perfect plan.

The second key mistake that I know I made was sincerely understanding how hard this would be on teachers. Let me be clear: We tried everything we could to make it safe and provide support so teachers could be successful in our district this year. It still was not good enough.

I do not know how to say this except very directly—true, synchronous hybrid teaching, is so darn hard. Our teachers battled through it and tried their best, but we forced them into situations where trying their best produced mediocre results. And that was deflating and defeating for our teachers. I simply did not anticipate the emotional and psychological toll that would take on our people.

Interestingly, I am not sure if it would have changed any of our decisions about reopening, but it would have changed the supports I put in place. I think we just misjudged how hard this would be, and the emotional impact it would have on teachers when “giving it their all” only produced “OK” results as measured by their own standards.

The lessons for me are clear. Next year, operate with humility, never underestimate the emotional and psychological toll this pandemic took on our teachers, and consider that toll in every decision made.


Overlooking Students’ Strengths

Selena A. Carrión (@SelenaCarrion) is an experienced ELA teacher and library media specialist working in the Bronx. Her work is grounded in historically responsive literacy instruction, anti-racist teaching, the mobilization of parents of color, and the equitable transformation of our schools:

A year and a half out, district and school leaders have had plenty of time to understand what mistakes have been made in the response to learning throughout the pandemic. The pandemic threw educators for a loop and into chaos with many trying to think quickly about what ways to best educate all students despite a lack of support often from the district level.

Some of the largest mistakes made were both technical and ideological. The incorporation of technology was not done as seamlessly or with enough attention to the digital divide that exists in our country. For instance, the attempt to create a concurrent learning model, or hybrid learning, was often disastrous across the board. While flipped learning and blended learning models involving technology have had great success years prior to the pandemic, hybrid learning turned into a hodgepodge and half-baked model that involved teachers trying to troubleshoot technological issues for themselves and students, all while trying to teach what was essentially two classes at once.

A similar issue occurred with remote learning. We had the resources and abilities to make it successful, but issuing technology to students, providing tech support to staff, and ensuring students had internet access was never implemented properly. Instead, it often seemed like the bare minimum was done in order to focus efforts on school reopenings that continued to be delayed for good reason.

District leaders need to come to terms with the lesson that technology in and of itself is not a means to education or instant learning. Technology is a powerful tool that can allow students more access and opportunity in schooling if carefully planned, implemented, and supported. Teachers are increasingly tech savvy and innovative. They love to incorporate ed-tech and digital tools into the classroom. Now is the time to learn from them what works and what doesn’t.

This is the opportunity to realize that we can continue to incorporate aspects of virtual learning into traditional in-person schooling in ways that boost student potential and battle inequities, not exacerbate them. There are many students that prefer remote learning for various reasons, like less stimuli, lack of social microaggressions, or ability to access classes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to take. Leaders need to ask how they can continue to harness the power of technology and virtual learning in order to make it a practical and sustainable part of education. There were many advantages that teachers saw in technology, whether it was being able to engage with students in more varied ways, accommodate parent schedules, or support learners in a more personalized manner. District leaders need to think about how they can take those aspects and streamline them in a way that makes sense to teachers and actually makes their work easier.

The ideological mistakes that were made are a bit trickier to confront, but so much can be learned from how students were underestimated. District leaders from the beginning of the pandemic assumed students weren’t learning, that the entire year was a waste. If they continue into the next school year with that mindset, they will lose out on so much potential and knowledge that students bring to the table.

While students absolutely struggled through the school year, they triumphed in so many unexpected ways, often showing that they are wiser and more capable than schools give them credit for. This is an opportunity to create different types of assessments that are equitable and inclusive, assessing the strengths that students possess rather than what we have deemed they’ve lost.

Leaders need to also think about the ways they can build off of students’ newfound skills, especially in technology, communication, digital and media literacy. This generation of students has always had a natural aptitude in this area, yet it’s often been ignored in favor of traditional academic skills despite our rapidly evolving 21st-century society. Schools would be remiss if they didn’t try to incorporate multimodal approaches to learning, in order to leverage the multiliteracy skills that students obviously possess. These are the learning gains that can build upon student interests, passions, and engage them further than traditional schooling ever did.


Slowing Things Down

Altagracia H. Delgado (Grace) has been in the education field for 27 years. In those years, she has worked as a bilingual teacher, literacy coach, and school and central-office administrator. Grace is currently the executive director of multilingual services for the Aldine ISD, in the Houston area:

I think that one of the biggest mistakes many school district leaders may have made during the pandemic has been trying to switch the teaching modality all at once by adding too much technology at one time.

Especially when dealing with wanting to see engagement in the classroom, teachers have shown that they need time to acclimate to a few tools at a time in order to turn them around to their students. When school had to shut down in spring 2020, many students were unable to engage in quality instruction due to the fact that districts were not prepared for that change. Many schools relied on electronic platforms they had been using to supplement instruction and not lead it. There is also the fact that many students and teachers lacked the devices needed to create and do the work being assigned. It was truly emergency teaching.

However, as we learned that schools were facing virtual or hybrid teaching for part or the whole 2020-21 school year, some districts began preparing for this “new normal” by investing in devices, better electronic platforms, and tons of training about using technology to engage students in learning. Although this was a good plan, the use of too many tech tools became overwhelming very early in the school year.

This could account for why many students demonstrated less engagement than anticipated, causing lack of educational achievement in the fall semester. We could say that a lesson learned in the midst of this situation has been the understanding that sometimes slowing down processes can help accelerate results. By this, I mean that teachers need time to learn how to use these digital tools in the most effective way for their content and grade level before they are able to turn them around for their students to use.

In the long run, this can have a more beneficial effect on students because they can truly learn how to use these platforms and applications, enhancing their own technological skills. Schools must remember that most teachers teach multiple content areas and sometimes different grade levels and that students can have anywhere between six to eight courses, so limiting some of the technology being introduced and used can help students be more engaged and decrease the amount of computer fatigue.


Needing to Let Go of Previous Expectations

Marci K. Harvey is a renewed national-board-certified teacher at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. She teaches 9th grade integrated science and 11th/12th grade physics in the high school program at UNCSA:

The biggest mistake made by district leaders during the pandemic was holding on to prepandemic standards and expectations for teachers and students. This has most definitely been the most unusual 15 months of teaching and learning for all of us. Parents, teachers, students, and communities are still adjusting to and coping with life in the times of COVID. What are the lessons that can be learned from these experiences, and how will they impact the future of education?

Here are some changes we saw during pandemic education and future trends as COVID numbers in the U.S. continue to decrease.

  • There is a lot to balance in education these days. Teachers must balance effective instruction with virtual groups of students. Students must balance classwork and studying with the isolation of learning from home. What we have learned is that we cannot teach the same way on the computer that we do in the classroom. Students do not learn the same way, either, but some students have thrived. In 2020, the RAND Corporation surveyed the American School District Panel, which consists of leaders of more than 375 school districts and charter-management organizations. The survey found 20 percent of districts plan to include a virtual option in future years, mainly as a response to student and parent demand. Families will be able to select the option that has served their students the best.
  • Schools continue to support students’ social and emotional learning. The American Psychological Association (APA) has studied the effects of distance learning on students’ mental health. The switch to virtual learning has reduced our ability to provide academic motivation for all students, and, in addition, at-risk students have lost support services (EC classes, mental-health services, ESL support). Students have lost daily interactions with peers and individualized feedback from teachers, resulting in socialization delays and lack of engagement in authentic learning. However, online learning has taught students to self-monitor their learning and to manage their time efficiently. Teachers have created new ways to engage our students and to offer feedback so our students continue to make progress. In the future, teacher-preparation programs need to include these skills for beginning teachers.
  • Standardized testing is the main source of data to evaluate student learning. In 2020, all 50 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, canceled state mandated exams with a waiver offered by the U.S. Department of Education under ESSA legislation. In 2021, however, the Biden administration has not offered blanket waivers for state testing, although they have provided more flexibility on the timing and length of tests given in each state. A summary of state bills and waivers is included in the National Conference of State Legislatures website, Public Education’s Response to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) Pandemic. In the years to come, districts need to implement other measures for student learning and teacher effectiveness, as well as limit comparisons of pandemic data with previous years’ data.

Yes, teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge. Letting go of our previous definitions of success and regimented learning pace for all students will be empowering for the future. We discovered many things that do not work in a virtual setting. Where system inequities have been brought to light, teachers have created new methods for supporting students and their learning. No matter the directions virtual learning and state testing take in the future, schools will continue to adapt.

Families can choose an appropriate setting for the social and emotional development of their children. Teachers will continue to innovate and inspire those in their classroom, whether it be virtual or in person. State testing is not likely to disappear, but the flexibility offered this year may begin a new conversation about alternative measures for student learning that is desperately needed.


Thanks to PJ, Selena, Altagracia, and Marci for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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